Super Castlevania IV is a combination of two things: a reinterpretation of the original Castlevania, and an impressive tech demo for the Super NES. It tinkers with the Castlevania formula in a number of interesting ways that make it feel significantly different than its predecessors.
The most obvious gameplay change in Castlevania IV is that Simon can now whip in any direction (though he can only whip in the downward directions while jumping). With the larger sprites on the SNES and the longer whip, this makes his primary weapon extremely powerful and flexible. Unfortunately, this flexibility does somewhat diminish the usefulness of subweapons like the axe, which were useful in previous games to attack in directions Simon otherwise couldn’t. In addition to directional whipping, Simon can also hold his whip out and flail it around. This does very little damage, but can be a useful technique for blocking projectiles or cheesing enemies just below you.
There are other fundamental changes which are smaller, but still have a big impact on the game. Simon can now control his jumps in mid-air, allowing for a slightly more action-oriented pace to the game. There are several platforming sections that require precision jumping, and this change is much appreciated. In addition, Simon can now jump onto staircases, and even drop off them. As a result, you’ll fall into a lot less pits. To compensate for Simon’s improved ability to navigate his surroundings, the enemies in Castlevania IV are generally a bit tougher and more aggressive than in previous games. It’s a good balance that exchanges the precision pace of the older games for something a bit more modern.
Where Castlevania IV really shines is in its presentation. It has great, atmospheric graphics and an understated but quality soundtrack. But, as an early SNES game, it also exists largely to show off the SNES’s capabilities. From a stage with a separate foreground and background area to a series of interesting mode 7 tricks and a ton of transparency, Castlevania IV really puts the system through its paces. In some cases it’s a bit much, as there is considerable slowdown caused by large numbers of sprites in several areas.
The level design is particularly interesting. Several levels are remakes of those from the original Castlevania, but most of them are all new and quite different from anything we’ve seen before. Aside from the mode 7 tech demo level, there are also vertical platforming levels, levels focused on swinging by your whip, and a visually stunning level that’s entirely filled with treasure. The bosses are also visually interesting, though not all that interesting in terms of mechanics. A lot will grow and shrink with mode 7, but there’s a lot of avoiding projectiles while whipping things without any real subtlety.
With solid gameplay and presentation, Super Castlevania IV is a good game. However, nothing sets it apart and makes it a truly great game. It loses a lot of what made Castlevania unique, and as a result kind of gets lost in the shuffle. It’s no accident that no future Castlevania game would be made in the style of this one. It’s an interesting evolutionary branch, but ultimately one that didn’t have a huge impact. It’s a fun game, just not a very memorable one.